Q&A: Keisuke Katori, of Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, Talks COP27 and the Importance of 1.5 Degrees Celsius

"There’s no escaping the effects of climate change. And there’s no exception for sports, or any other aspect of our lives."

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with different journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and their ideas for pushing our craft forward. This week, we spoke with Keisuke Katori, a science reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers. Previously, Katori served as foreign correspondent with the paper, based in Washington, DC. We talked about coverage of the ongoing COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, a media collaboration in Japan focusing on the importance of the United Nations’ goal to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the world’s worrisome reversion to coal. The conversation, with CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Katori on Twitter.

How did you become interested in the climate story?

In college, I was interested in conflict and why wars happen. I wanted to become a foreign correspondent and write articles about this for the Japanese people. I joined the Asahi Shimbun after school, and, as is customary in Japanese media, I was assigned first to a regional office in Japan to be trained as a reporter, covering everything from local government to social issues and sports. Later, when I was transferred to the head office, in Tokyo, I told my bosses I wanted to cover the environment and energy. I felt that these would be important subjects in the coming years and that environmental and energy crises could be the sparks that lead to war—like what’s happening in Ukraine today.

Covering these issues led to covering climate negotiations. I learned how serious climate change is and how it was contributing to many of the disasters unfolding before our eyes around the world. When the Paris Agreement was signed at COP21, in 2015, it was a very exciting moment. A goal had been set for societies to decarbonize, and I boarded the plane from Paris back to Tokyo thinking, “Wow, the world is going to change.” But life went on the same as before; there was no significant change from government or industry. Based on everything I’d learned, I knew this was not the way to go, so I decided I would write even more about climate change.

For context, can you talk about how climate change is affecting Japan?

Recently, we’ve had heat waves in the summer exceeding 40 degrees C [104 degrees Fahrenheit]. Intense, heavy rains in very short periods of time are occurring more frequently. And food systems have also been affected. In September, we published a piece entitled “Climate change from the kitchen table,” which summarized the declining quality of Japanese rice and the effects of ocean warming on local fisheries. My colleague and I have also researched how excess heat has led nursery schools across the country to limit outdoor play for children.

I don’t know if most Japanese people understand that the cause of all this is global warming. Japan is an island country and also a very mountainous country, and earthquakes, volcanic activity, and other environmental disasters have always been common here. People are accustomed to this. But recently, thanks to weather attribution studies, we’re better able to understand the link between climate change and today’s disasters. According to attribution science, for example, the great heat wave that hit Japan this summer was 240 times more likely due to climate change.

How have these changes been reflected in the Japanese press?

I believe editors and reporters in Japanese media know how important climate change and the environment are. But historically, we didn’t always know how to cover these issues—and there was a belief that audiences weren’t very attracted to these topics. Recently, this has been getting better.

Earlier this year, for example, Japanese outlets came together to create a campaign of press coverage publicizing the importance of the UN’s 1.5-degree-C goal and encouraging climate action. The campaign is called “The promise of 1.5 degrees: Act now to stop global warming,” which began in September around the UN General Assembly and ends with COP27 later this month. In many ways, the campaign is similar to Covering Climate Now’s joint coverage weeks; it’s a good excuse for outlets to do a lot about climate change. Major Japanese TV stations—NHK, Fuji TV, TBS, and more—ran joint ads and programming, inviting many researchers and decision-makers into their studios to discuss climate change. A popular fashion magazine produced a special climate issue. And the Asahi Shimbun created a special website, with a range of feature articles and interviews about the 1.5-degrees-C goal. During COP27, we’ve also had daily quizzes on climate change in the newspaper.

What are some of the Asahi Shimbun’s priorities for COP27 coverage?

This COP is very important, because it’s taking place amid the invasion of Ukraine, a global energy crisis, and many climate disasters around the world. We have a team of reporters in Sharm El-Sheikh, including two reporters from Tokyo and our reporter in Egypt, and I’m working as the COP27 desk officer in Tokyo. So far, we’ve written, for example, about how countries are going backwards on their climate commitments. This COP is also a good chance to introduce the Japanese people to the concept of “loss and damage,” which means compensation for the lives, infrastructure, and economic destruction that is caused by climate change. I’ve asked Asahi Shimbun correspondents across the Global South to cover climate disasters and suffering—to show the lives of people in Pakistan and West Africa, for example, which are experiencing major flooding.

Speaking of countries going backwards: A few years ago, we might have said coal power was firmly on the outs. But recently we’ve seen a reversion to coal in major countries, including China, India, and Japan. How have you covered this?

After the Fukushima accident in 2011, nuclear power plants across Japan were shut down. There were sixty nuclear plants then, but now only about five remain operational. Coal power, which is cheap and easy to procure, is making up for much of the difference. This is a major contradiction in our country, because the Japanese government has otherwise declared a goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. They say they can reduce emissions, even if they continue using coal, with a mix of biomass and hydrogen energy, but the reductions from these alternative energy sources are in fact only marginal. And Japan remains one of the top countries publicly financing fossil fuels. So the net-zero pledge feels more like an empty promise.

But the significance of this contradiction can be difficult to communicate to audiences. The best way to mitigate climate change is to stop using coal and other fossil fuels, but at the same time, of course, we need energy today. So our readers feel a bit helpless and don’t know what to think. My colleagues in the newsroom and I discuss this a lot, and our decision has been to do more coverage of alternative energy solutions. Interest in renewable energy is growing, but not as quickly as it needs to in order to help stop climate change. So we want to show our audiences more about these alternatives and how they can help increase conservation and efficiency.

How do you make the question of loss and damage relevant to the everyday reader in Japan?

I’m always thinking about this. In Japan, the reaction to disasters elsewhere is often “Oh, that’s not my business. It’s a sad story, but it’s very far from Tokyo, and I don’t know what I can do.” This is the normal reaction. But similar climate disasters are happening in Japan. We’ve had major flooding and landslides. Due to sea-level rise the beach is disappearing in some places. People are moving inland, to avoid disasters on the coast and along rivers. I think it’s important to connect these changes to the huge amount of greenhouse gases that Japan has emitted—[Japan is the world’s fifth largest greenhouse-gas emitter, behind China, the US, India, and Russia]—and to show how our emissions, in part, are eventually contributing to similar disasters abroad.

During the recent flooding in Pakistan, our science team wrote articles about how climate change leads to heavy rains and how it’s changing seasonal monsoons, comparing the effects in Pakistan to the effects at home. Similarly, when Europe experienced bad heat waves and drought, we connected those to heat waves here and showed how global warming was a factor.

Japan hosted the Summer Olympics last year. Do you have any advice for journalists covering the upcoming World Cup in Qatar on how to include climate in the conversation?

From the very beginning of the bidding process for the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, and throughout the planning for them, there was concern about extreme heat. In September 2019, when the Asahi Shimbun joined Covering Climate Now, we wrote an article pointing out this problem and the danger to athletes’ lives.

In general, we’re constantly trying to connect sports and climate, because sports present such a good opportunity to talk to audiences about climate change—to attract new audiences to the climate story. Studies have shown that in a warmer world the number of suitable sites for events like the Olympics and World Cup will decrease significantly, along with safety for athletes. During the Winter Olympics in Beijing this year, our sports reporter wrote a lengthy feature on the sustainability of winter sports after seeing all the ski resorts without snow. Recently, the same reporter used Climate Central’s sea-level-rise prediction tool to write an article about how some professional baseball stadiums in Japan are forecast to sink into the ocean. The main point is: There’s no escaping the effects of climate change. And there’s no exception for sports, or any other aspect of our lives.